After Telepi had gone back, a deep melancholy took possession of me.
My wife was ill, and I had never even dreamt of the possibility of such a thing. What if she were to die without being able to exchange a last adieu? She wants to set me free, she says; but how? She cannot tell me. She cannot tell anybody. Why should she have any secrets from me? Ah! that green-eyed monster is a bad guide to the imagination. A celebrated actress can so readily find protectors. Perhaps they are men in authority, who hold life and death in their hands. Oh, eternal darkness, do not deprive me of the light of my reason! Suppose I were to gain readmittance into the world at such a price as that! This condition of mind was becoming absolutely unendurable.
Sometimes the desire seized me to rush out of the forest, knock at the door of the first Commandant I came to, and give up my name: “I am that notorious rebel — take my head, I’ll pay the price!”
But my given word, my word of honour, held me back. Ah! a man’s word of honour must be kept, even though it be only given to his wife.
I had promised to go nowhere. But surely the forest is nowhere, and that Precipice Stone is, indeed, the most out-of-the-way nowhere in the whole world. Thither no man ever goes. Thither at least I am free to go.
My first, not very successful, picture of the great panorama I had sent to my wife. I would now have another try at it.
One fine autumn morning I again took up my lead-loaded stick, and said to my dear good hostess that she was not to expect me home to dinner that day, as I was going to scramble up to the Pagan Altar and sketch there.
The gentry call this rocky pinnacle the Pagan Altar; the peasants call it the Precipice Stone.
“But don’t stay long,” said Mrs. Csányi; “suppose your dearest were to arrive in the meantime?”
My dearest! As if she thought of seeking me out! They only put me off with promises, just as they tell a sick child that he shall have a rocking-horse when he gets well. It was exactly seven weeks since she had left me. What an endless time!
I made my way at once towards the linden spring, and thence up the forest hill-side by the often-trodden familiar path. The nuts came showering down; the frost had already tweaked the Cornelian cherries. I crammed my knapsack full of both: I shall have a luxurious banquet today. I also found a large coral-coloured mushroom; roasted in embers, it would make a tit-bit worthy of a gourmet.
It was about ten o’clock when I got up to the Pagan Altar.
When I went out upon the rocky ledge, a truly wondrous scene spread itself out before me; it was quite certain that I should never be able to paint it. The whole kingdom was under the sea! The autumn mist, like a snow-cloud, covered the whole landscape to the very horizon, from which towered vast snowy peaks and snowy cupolas; in other places the misty mantle resembled frozen waves, out of which here and there rose round, blackish islands, the peaks of the higher mountains. It was a faithful image of reality: nothingness. There was nothing left now.
I could calculate pretty surely on the mist descending at midday, and painting field and forest with frost; but till then I could sketch nothing.
So I lay down upon the rocky ledge, and marvelled at this motionless, huge, white winding-sheet which covered a whole realm. I had no thought of eating now. I hung up my knapsack with my bread and bacon on a spruce-fir tree, and when I had looked my fill of wonder at the sea of mist, I watched the itinerant ants who, following their regular road, crept right over my body, never troubling themselves very much about the circumstance that a giant, like a mountain range, lay right across their path.
At this height not even the thrush’s whistle broke the stillness.
The sun shone down. Not a breeze was stirring. My head was resting on a large green mossy stone; I felt like dropping off to sleep.
All at once, as if I really were dreaming, from somewhere not very far off a song rang out:—
“Lo! on the mountain top
A valiant man doth stand,
And on his trusty weapon rests
His stalwart good right hand.”
It was a man’s voice, and I seemed to recognise it.
My first feeling was joy. I was about to meet some old acquaintance in that vast wilderness. It only occurred to me afterwards that this would be contrary to my compact. I was to meet no man who could possibly recognise me.
But it was too late to avoid him now. Only one single path led up to the summit of the Precipice Stone, whether one came from Tordona or from Malyinka, and my songster was evidently coming from the latter place.
The next verse of the song sounded very much nearer:—
“Lo! on his kalpag69 see
A blood-red nodding plume;
A mantle black surrounds his neck,
His wild eye lowers with gloom.”
69 The tall fur hat, generally plumed, which forms part of the Hungarian national costume.]
And now I heard a woman’s voice also.
Some one was telling the singer not to sing while climbing.
So there was a pair of them!
And as the singer gradually mounted higher and higher, his figure also became visible from behind the rocky ledge.
“Presumptuous mortal, quake and fear
When thou his awful name dost hear:
Diavolo, Diavolo, Diavolo!”
Yet nobody quaked so much as Fra Diavolo himself, when he perceived a human shape stretched before him on the ground as he scaled the very summit of the rocky ledge.
And certainly I was not a very reassuring spectacle, as, with my sheepskin cap pressed closely to my head, and a large cudgel in my fist, I slowly rose from my knees.
I recognised him before he recognised me.
“Your servant, Bálványossi! Why, how did you manage to get here, where not even the bird that flies can come?”
Then his terror was turned into joy.
“Ah, ha! my poet-friend! What a divine encounter here in Heaven above!” With that he hastened up to me and we embraced.
By this time his lady companion had also got the better of the rocky zig-zag which led up to the mountain ledge.
It was now the turn of my own heart to stop beating. That female shape was Bessy — the sea-eyed beauty!
How came they two to be together? How came they to be both here at the same time?
But it was no vision. The fair lady recognised me instantly. Her face, red already from her mountain scramble, could be no redder at the sight of me, nor could her bosom heave more than it was heaving now; but on her face there was a sort of holding-back expression.
Friend Valentine perceived the look of amazed inquiry on my face, and turning with true histrionic humour towards his lady-companion, introduced her to me with the words, “My grandmother!”
At this witticism the lady laughed, and I had sufficient self-control not to reply to this introduction with a single word.
“Then come to my bosom, my son, for I am thy grandfather.”
“It is very strange we should meet here,” I put in.
But my friend’s features suddenly darkened as if he were obeying a stage direction like, “here he suddenly assumes a grave face.”
“First of all, my dear friend,” said he, “I demand your word of honour not to reveal to any one in the created world that you have seen me. You know that I am now Tihamér Rengetegi till the old blonde hair grow again (what I’m wearing now is a wig); for a heavy price is fixed upon my head. A word, and I am lost. Your parole that you’ll say nothing about me?”
“The promise must be mutual, then,” I replied. “I just as solemnly require you to say not a word to anybody about me, for I also am in hiding here.”
At this he began to laugh. It was a stage laugh, for he placed his hand on his stomach, crooked his back, and turned upon his heel, choking with laughter.
“And you also are hiding away here from the Germans! Well, that is a joke!”
I inquired somewhat brusquely what there was to laugh at.
“Why, at your hiding — hiding away from the Imperialists. You, of all people! Why, don’t you know, then, that very many deputies defended themselves before the court-martials by declaring themselves former contributors to your Esti Lap?70 Why, every one knows that you were the organ of the peace party at Debreczin. Every one is well aware that you were the ally of the Imperialists.”
70 Evening News.]
At this I at once flew into a rage.
“Have you ever seen the Esti Lap?”
“No, I’ve not actually seen it, but it was the general opinion among us soldiers that you were higgling with the Imperialists.”
At this Bessy intervened by giving a good tug at her friend’s collar.
“Rubbish! Such rumours are only circulated by pot-house heroes like yourself. He certainly was no traitor! Would that all who open their mouths so loudly were as good patriots?”
My friend, with sheepish obsequiousness, hastened to readjust his opinion to the satisfaction of his “grandmother.”
“Good, good! I never believed a word of it myself — why should I?” said he.
“The best proof that I am not what calumny would make me is the fact of my meeting you here at the Pagan Altar; and again I beg of you to tell nobody that we have met.”
Here Bessy again intervened.
“I’ll answer for that. I shall now be constantly at the side of this honest gentleman, and if his tongue begins to wag, my hand will be ready to stop it for him.”
Mr. Valentine laughed.
“What a woman it is! She really has a most rapid hand. Not a day passes but she lets me feel the weight of her palm.”
At this I made a very critical face. My good friend could read very well from it that I wished to know by what right his cheeks were allowed to feel the force of Bessy’s rosy palms day by day.
“We met together in camp, and the field-chaplain blessed our union to the roaring of guns and the beating of drums.”
That was right enough, surely!
Bessy’s eyes were raised towards me as if she could add a great deal to this short history. Friend Valentine thought it good to become loudly enthusiastic.
“What a woman, my friend! A heroine! A perfect Jeanne d’Arc! We were bound together by a whole chain of wonders and exploits. She was not my consort — nay! she was much more, my companion in arms. I’ll tell you the whole thing one of these days.”
“That will do. . . . ”
“What? That will do? Are you, then, so poor-spirited? I am ready to meet the spectres of the darkness face to face. I’ll set in motion the avalanche which shall wrench the world from its hinges.”
I left him to set his avalanche in motion while I went to gather dry twigs and leaves and make a heap of them. Meanwhile Valentine declaimed to the clouds.
“What a spectacle! The whole realm a sea! We stand alone, like the cooperating Demiurges at the creation, in the face of chaos.”
“Have you got your troupe together?” I inquired, thus bringing him down at once from his pedestal.
“My troupe? That’s just what I am going about now. Brutus must play the fool until his day has come. But when once the hour of retribution arrives, we will rise as one man and win back our outraged liberties.”
“With my bludgeon, I suppose?”
“Oh, not with that sort of thing,” said friend Valentine, with haughty condescension. “I have no secret to hide from you. An American hero of freedom has invented a weapon which, placed in the hand of a simple citizen, will give him an irresistible advantage over the hireling soldiery. Its English name is ‘revolver.’ I have one by me. Thanks to my acquaintances beyond the ocean, I have managed to provide myself with it. Look here!”
With that he produced from his side pocket a pistol, the like of which I had never seen before. It was the Colt revolver, for discharging five shots. You loaded it in front, and with this object in view, you had to shove out the cartridge cylinder and sprinkle powder out of the powder-flask in every loop-hole; at the end of the bullet was a nail, which had to be made firm with a cork-stopper, then the bullet had to be driven into the barrel by means of a hammer and ramrod, then the cartridge cylinder had to be fastened down again into its place, and pyramids of priming powder piled on the top of it — while the enemy was supposed to be looking on all the time and watching good-naturedly to see what would come of it all.
Friend Valentine had immense confidence in his wondrous firearm.
“You can see that I am prepared for every conceivable emergency. My faith, I will sell my life dearly! I may tell you, for you will not betray me. Beneath this Pagan Altar is a cave, the existence of which is known only to the initiated. I have selected it for my hiding-place. When the chase against me begins, and a whole brigade of gendarmes marches out to seize me, I will creep into this cave; victuals and brandy for a whole week are already there for me; let them riot round me then as they like.”
I could not help laughing at these wise precautions. But friend Valentine’s explanations became still more fiery.
“My friend! a single narrow little path leads to this cave. The bears used possibly to resort thither in the days when bears camped in the beech districts. If they attempt to storm me there, I can defend myself with this revolver against a whole host.”
All this time I had been employed in piling up a nice little heap of dry twigs and leaves, which I now set on fire with my flint and steel.
Friend Valentine caught me nervously by the hand.
“What are you doing, my friend?”
“Lighting a fire, my friend.”
“Why, my friend?”
“To cook bacon with, my friend.”
“They will see the blaze of our fire from below.”
“How can they see when the mist is so thick there?”
He admitted that I was right, and allowed me to ignite my heap, which immediately began to crackle merrily.
Meanwhile, friend Valentine went and stood on the edge of the Precipice Stone to watch the mist, and from time to time informed me of the changes of scene that were going on: now the mists were beginning to break, now they were rising, the houses would be visible almost immediately.
And all the time I was toasting slices of bread by the fire, and after that slices of bacon, allowing the bacon fat to drip gradually down and soak through the toast with a deftness that would have done honour to a professional cook.
Bessy took it into her head to follow my example.
“Give me the bread and bacon out of the knapsack,” said she to Valentine.
“But what necessity for it is there now?”
“I must have it at once.”
And with that she went up to him and began rummaging in the knapsack.
“Why, what a prosaic nature is yours!” said Valentine reproachfully to the lady. “At such a sublime moment, too, in the presence of such a glorious spectacle! Just look at that magnificent scene! The whole of the cloud of mist is rising like a stage curtain. The gigantic theatre appears like magic from behind the hanging cloudy tapestries. Behold the sunlit heights, the white shimmering houses. And now a fresh mountain-chain emerges crowned with dim forests. Just as if they were of massive gold. . . . ”
“Give me the bacon, I say.”
“My heart, my blood is thine, but ask me not for bacon! Look how the earth rises up before us; nothing but mountains, mountains, mountains! Still nothing to be seen of the dome of Heaven! And that deep divine calm around us! Only from the distant forge resounds the measured thud of the sledge hammer, as though one heard the throbbing of the heart of the universe! And does not thine own heart beat faster in this sublime place?”
“It throbs, it throbs! Right sorely does it throb! But we’ll look at the august spectacle a little later.”
“What! Not look when an instant like this is worth a world?”
The natural phenomenon before us really was very fine, as the whole misty cloud rose swiftly from the mountains, covering with a deep shadow the sky that up to that moment had been shining bright and blue before us, and at the same time unfolding before us the muffled panorama of hill behind hill beneath our feet; the solar rays, like the broad diverging spokes of a huge wheel, shot down from the cloudy rifts with a milky sort of glare. It would really have been a majestic scene but for the false, disturbing pathos of friend Valentine.
“Nay, nay! I cannot view it standing on my feet! Here one should go down upon one’s knees. Here the gods themselves walk abroad!”
Valentine plumped down upon his knees, and because Bessy would not follow his example, he wound his arm around her and clasped her to his breast. She, however, was impatient at his insipid vapourings.
“You are just like that professor,” said she, “who held up his oil-lamp against the moon that his guests might see her better.”
“Elizabeth!” sighed the Celadon bitterly (Bessy was a name which could not be emphasized with sighs so well as Elizabeth), “dost thou not remember that solemn moment when we said to one another, ‘How sweet it would be to die together this instant’? Has not our common friend said (here he looked at me), ‘A good death is better than a bad life’? Come, let us verify that saying: wrapped in each other’s embrace, heart throbbing responsive to heart, a dizziness, a plunge forward from this rock, and then a delicious flight whose goal will be the stars!”
“Go away with you! Don’t make a fool of yourself! I have no wish to plunge into Heaven!”
“But I’ll bear thee thither with me like a Valkyrian. And thou, my friend, wilt immortalize our final catastrophe in a heroic ballad.”
And with that he seized the lady by the arm, and rushed with her upon the steep rocky ledge.
“Hast thou said thy prayers today, Desdemona?”
Bessy looked towards me with a timid look. I pretended to observe nothing. What had I to do with these amorous passages? I was frizzling bacon.
“Dost thou doubt me capable of dying with thee at this moment?” cried Valentine Bálványossi, with his wig awry over his eyes.
Then the lady cried with a supplicating voice: “Nay; but help me, dear Maurice!”
“Very well, I will help you,” thought I; “I did it once before, so you say. Poets have long arms.”
“Friend Valentine,” said I, without rising from my squatting position beside the frizzling bacon, “don’t you see those two men with muskets coming up this way along the mountain path?”
“Wha-a-at, two m-m-men with mus-us-kets?” said the hero, his rumbling bass-baritone voice suddenly dwindling into a piping treble. “Where are they?” All his longing for death had instantly vanished, and he immediately released his victim from his embrace.
I indicated the approaching strangers with my toasting-fork. “There!”
Then he also saw them.
“Br-r-rother, those are gend-end-end-armes!”
“Possibly they are gend-end-armes, for there are two of them.”
“Put out the fire at once!”
“I would if I could, but I can’t now. And if I did, what good would that do? They have seen it already.”
“I told you not to make a fire here.”
But now Bessy turned furiously upon him.
“It is your stagey spouting that has saddled us with them. What business had you to go declaiming on the mountain tops? The people fancy you are murdering some one.”
“They are coming straight towards us,” gasped friend Valentine. “If they get hold of me, I am lost.”
I tried to reassure him: “Come, come! recollect there are two of us; with my loaded cudgel and your revolver we shall offer a stubborn resistance.”
“Br-r-other, they have guns which hit at four hundred yards, while my revolver has only a range of thirty, and it doesn’t always hit the mark even then. We cannot risk so much. It is quite another thing when I am in the dark cave, and they are out in the light, for then I can see them, but they can’t see me.”
“Then you’ll hide away in your cave, I suppose?”
“Oh, not for my own life’s sake, but for the sake of my country, whose fate I carry in my bosom. The heels of my boots are full of secret despatches from England and Turkey. I am not free to stake everything so lightly.”
“Well, go and hide yourself, by all means!”
But then Bessy put in a word: “’Tis all very well, but what’s to become of me. I cannot crawl on all fours into your big bear-garden.”
“Nor would I allow it. Is not our common friend here? He will remain here. You will not run away, will you? I am sure they don’t know you. Your portrait has appeared nowhere, but mine has gone from hand to hand. A full description of my personal appearance flutters at every street corner. If they come, say that it was you who kicked up that row; say that she is your wife.”
“I won’t say that.”
“Then do what you like. I rely upon you, mind!”
“That’s all very well,” cried Bessy peevishly, “but what will happen afterwards? If you remain in your hole, and our good friend goes home, what am I to do all alone here by myself on the top of a rock? I shall never find my way home through this wood.”
Then my friend, with cheap generosity, made this magnanimous offer:—
“Dear friend, take her home with you.”
So that was to be the dénouement of this odd drama!
“No, my magnanimous friend. Not so! You go and reserve yourself for posterity. We two will remain here. One of two things is bound to happen. If those two men, armed with muskets, find me painting pictures in my album, they will believe either that I am a simple painter (they know that Károly Telepi is wandering about on a sketching tour here, and they’ll take me for him, and Bessy for — my sister); or they’ll not believe anything of the kind, and in that case they’ll escort us both to Miskolcz. In the latter case you need have no fear of turning back. If, on the other hand, after the lapse of a few hours, you creep out of your cave and see me sitting as before, on the rocky ledge, and peaceably continuing my sketching, then you will know that the armed invasion has passed on further, and you can come back again to the Lady Elizabeth. Then I’ll give you my blessing, and we’ll return from whence we came — you to the east, I to the west.”
With this he was satisfied.
“But don’t betray me!” he murmured, casting a terrified look upon us; “even though they hale you off to the block, don’t say where I am.”
I gave him my word of honour that not even the Spanish boot should extort his secret from me, whereupon he went gingerly down upon all fours, scrambled up the rocky summit by the corkscrew path, and vanished among the bushes.
“Ugh! I only wish he hadn’t taken the bread and bacon along with him!” lamented the girl he left behind him.
“I’ll share mine with you; there’s enough for two.”
And with that I seized my crooked clasp-knife, cut the slice of bread in two, minced the bacon into little bits, and sprinkled it with salt and pepper.
Nor was that all. I rubbed both sides of the toasted bacon with a knob of garlic. It was a sort of Oriental language of flowers. I meant to remind her that her ideal of a man was one who did not rinse his mouth after eating garlic.
Thus we were alone on the summit of the Pagan Altar, crouching together beside a fire of burning embers, and dividing a piece of toast and a slice of bacon — I and the former mistress of my heart.
That “former” was not so very long ago. It was scarcely three years since the golden thrushes mingled their songs with our chats. The idyllic contemplation of the matter, however, was considerably disturbed by the concrete circumstance that, during these three years, a third masterpiece of creation had found in my former paragon the rib that had been subtracted from him while he slept. Her first venture was a fashionable fop, her second an Antinous of the wilderness, her third was now a stage Othello.
And our feelings were still further subdued by the disagreeable tension occasioned by the approach towards us of two armed men, who kept on popping up before us in the clearings of the forest, now here, now there, but continually drawing nearer to the Pagan Altar. There could not now be a doubt that they were making towards us.
“It would be as well if I set to work and sketched something in my album while they are approaching,” said I, “in case they inquire what I am doing here.”
With that, I sat down on the steep rocky ledge, placed my sketch-book on my knee, and designed the contours of my picture on a grand scale.
The lady sat down close beside me, and observed how I looked now on the hills and now on my paper — but never into her fine eyes.
We did not exchange a word with each other, not a single word.
At last, however, I grew impatient of the silence, and without looking up from my sketch, I said to her: “I really thought that by this time you and Peter Gyuricza had filled the whole world full of butter and cheese.”
But then, with both her hands, she seized my sketching hand, so that I had to leave off my work, and said, with a mournful voice:
“You have the most sovereign contempt for me now, eh? But if I were to tell you what frightful calamities I have gone through since last we met, then I am sure you would have compassion on me.”
I told her that if she liked to speak, I could now listen, as I had plenty of time.
“You remember when last we met, don’t you? When you banged the door in my face, I mean — though, God knows, I only meant to do you good then. I never meant to make you so angry, and immediately made the best of my way home to the hut of Peter Gyuricza. Ah! how sorry I then was that I had not pleaded my cause with you better. I had another reason for going to you. When the lawyers took up my case, the fair-haired partner offered me a little money, which I might repay him, he said, when I gained my suit. But I chose to ride the high horse, and rejected the proffered money, although I had really nothing about me but three huszases,71 which I had saved from the proceeds of the butter. That was not even enough for the steam-boat. A couple of florins or so would have done. But, of course, when you drove me out of your room I had to do without.”
71 The husza— 20 kreutzers.]
“I am very sorry that I did not guess your need.”
“Still more sorry was I. I was obliged, in my straits, to climb into the cart of a poulterer who was going to Vienna, and who, for two of my huszases, found a place for me among the hen-coops. I still had a few garashes72 for my journey, which were sufficient to pay for the straw on which I slept at the inns where we descended. On the third day I arrived safely at Uj–Szöny, and by that time I had eaten the last bit of bread and cheese in my basket. In front of the inn stood a lame and paralysed beggar, who begged alms of me in God’s name. I had only two kreutzers still left. I kept back one kreutzer from the beggar, for I knew that I should have to pay a toll on the bridge. Now, that was your fault, look you. You might have inserted a paragraph in the Twelve Articles of Pest abolishing the tolls.”
72 A garash— 3 kreutzers.]
I was furious. I had to erase half my drawing. Bessy laughed at my misfortune, and at her own also. Then she proceeded:—
“From thence I had to make my way home on foot. I could go right along by the banks of the Danube without entering the town. I did not meet a single acquaintance. In front of me I saw a large group of National Guards in blue attilas, hastening rapidly towards the fortress amidst the beating of drums. It must have been a serious business which prevented them from looking at a pretty woman. Then I went nicely and quietly along the well-known way. Like the egg-selling woman in the fairy-tale, I began to consider what I would do when I got back my patrimony. I would go with my Gyuricza right away into Transylvania, there I would buy him a property, where he might rear as many cattle as he liked. I myself would learn to spin like the Pákular73 women: my husband should wear clothes of my own weaving. I would adorn my bedchamber with embroidered napkins, hang varnished vases all round, and there should be rows of pewter dishes on every shelf. We should have our plum-orchard too, and from the plums I would make palinka. I would keep bees, and make mead, and bake honey-cakes, which Peter loves so much when he can get them at the fair. All this time I had never noticed that I was getting quite close to the hut. It was drawing towards evening, and smoke was coming from the chimney. No doubt the little serving-maid was cooking supper according to my directions. How surprised Peter would be when I brought his flesh-pot out to him in the pastures! When I entered the hut I found by the hearth — nobody. I went into the room. What do I see? My Peter Gyuricza sitting at the table — with his wife; and they were supping sweetly together out of the same dish, like two turtle-doves!”
73 A village in Transylvania, chiefly inhabited by Wallachs. — TR.]
(“Aha!” I murmured, “poetic justice with a vengeance; I myself could not have devised a happier dénouement.”)
“Everything became green and blue before my eyes. My throat contracted. I was incapable of uttering a word. But the tongue of the little peasant woman wagged all the brisker. No sooner did she see me than she bounced from her place, cocked her haube on the side of her head, stuck her arms akimbo, and fell foul of me.
“‘Ah, ha! my dear precious lady! I suppose ’tis Carnival time, since you come masquerading hither like that! Perhaps you’ve come because you’ve lost something here, eh? A shawl, perhaps? A very pretty little ladyship, that I will say! Haven’t you got a nice enough lord and master of your own at home? Must you befool the poor peasant also? Or if your lawful husband is not enough for you, can’t you go and choose another from among the cavaliers of your own rank? You hanker after laying your little stuck-up noddle on my patch-pillow, eh? You ought to be ashamed of yourself!’
“I was dumbfoundered. This face of a fury, with the eyes sticking out of its head, robbed me of all my pluck. In my despair and doubt I looked at Peter.
“He all this time was sitting with his elbows on the table and swallowing one dumpling after another.
“‘Is this justice, Peter?’ stammered I, half-sobbing; ‘will you let me be treated like this?’
“At this he struck the table with his fist a mighty blow and roared at his wife: ‘Woman! Shut up! Hold your tongue! Sit down at that table and fill your stomach! I’ll speak now.’
“The woman sulked in silence, but, even while her husband was speaking, she could not forbear putting in a word or two here and there, such as: ‘She has worn out my dress, too! — I didn’t steal that! My lovely chintz dress! How she has rumpled it! Just as if she had been tumbling it about in every pot-house!’
“But Peter spoke very sagely.
“‘My lady, I beg pardon! I know what honour is. I was once a soldier. I know my duty. What won’t match can’t match. A horse and an ox won’t draw together. A peasant woman’s meet for a peasant, a lady’s meet for a gentleman. Now did I ever so much as raise my little finger to your ladyship? You know I didn’t. And yet how many times haven’t you ruined the butter? You never moistened the maize. The pigs wouldn’t eat it because it set their teeth on edge, for you threw them hard raw grain. This won’t do, you know! When the cows calve, who’ll be there to see to them? And who is there to clean out the furnace? The mice have gnawed away the sleeves of my jacket, it’s all in rags. Besides that, I have got into the way of saying, “Hie, you Jutka! d’ye hear?” and then she knows very well what her duty is; and when I strike her she makes no bones about it, either. I couldn’t live without thrashing her occasionally; it does my back good, which would else grow double; and she always knows how to come round me again.’”
I threw my sketch-book and my palette out of my hand, and flung myself down on my back, I laughed so much. How could I help laughing? Bessy laughed too.
“I can laugh mightily at it now, but situated as I was then, his words were so many lashes. At last I flew into a rage and attacked Peter.
“‘Can’t you say straight out that Muki Bagotay has bribed you to take back your wife, whom you drove away on his account?’
“‘Oh, I humbly beg your pardon, you must not say that I am bribed. I am an upright man. His honour, my lord Bagotay, gave me ten head of oxen as a gift, but he didn’t bribe me.’
“My heart was ready to break at these words.
“Ten head of oxen indeed! For the sake of this peasant I had sacrificed my whole existence, the world in which I had hitherto lived, the respect of my acquaintances, my ease and comfort. I had made the earnest resolve to become a peasant woman for his sake, to work, do without things, suffer penury, and when once I had recovered my property, to give it all to him, make him a gentleman according to his notion of a gentleman, and the wretched creature had bartered me for ten oxen!”
I hastened to explain to Bessy that this was really the legally appointed fine for adultery in case the affair came to be settled. Verböczy74 says: “Raptor solvat decem juvencos.”—“The seducer must pay ten oxen.”
74 The great Hungarian jurist (1460–1541), and one of the most eminent statesmen of his day. His opus magnum, entitled “Tripartitum opus juris consultudinarii inclyti regni Hungariæ,” was first published in 1517. — TR.]
Bessy then proceeded:—
“Peter next began to give me counsels worthy of a patriarch.
“‘My lady, I’ve only one thing to say. Go back to his lordship. God’s my witness that nothing will befall you. Say now, Jutka — come, on your soul be honest — have I so much as touched you with my little finger since you came back? His lordship, too, knows all about it. He will close one eye. Let’s look upon the matter as if he and I had been wrestling together, and first one had had a fall and then the other. One box on the ears deserves another. So it is among men of honour!’”
“Oh, don’t make me laugh so, or I cannot go on sketching!” said I to Bessy, with the tears in my eyes.
“I don’t know what you can find to laugh at, I could cry for vexation even now.”
“Why, that of itself is enough to make one laugh!”
“But then the woman began talking nicely to me, which was ever so much worse. ‘Come, come, my dear, good, pretty lady, have respect for your nice, handsome, lawful lord. Why, what a fine gentleman it is! Why, if I hadn’t my Peter . . . ’
“‘You manage to forget that, though, pretty often!’ intervened Peter.
“The long and short of it all was that I had to resume the clothes I had left behind me, and restore to Jutka the draggle-tail rags which she had charged me with spoiling. But what objection could I make? What belongs to another is his, so I began to strip off my frock and neckerchief before the pair of them straightaway.
“The other woman then got a bit ashamed on my account. ‘Let us go into the inner room,’ said she; and drew me into the little chamber, and took out of her wardrobe the lordly raiment I had left there, and then helped me to dress. And all the time she was so mild, so friendly, and quite lost herself in rustic caresses and flatteries: ‘Why, what a nice slim waist! What a shame that a mere clown should clasp it round! What lovely white shoulders! What a sin to ruin them by carrying about heavy loads! And how swollen the little feet are from much walking! Why, they’ll scarcely go into the old dress-boot, I do declare! Why fly into such tantrums about such trifles! Good gracious me! suppose every lady who caught her lord with a little milkmaid were to carry on with the first clown that fell in her way! Things like that should not be taken so seriously. A man is but a man, especially if he is a gentleman! Why, I’ve seen countesses even, whose husbands went on the loose. You expect too much, my dear! Chocolate is the nicest dish in the whole world; but if one were to give one’s husband nothing but chocolate every day, he would soon loathe the very sight of it. Come, come! go home, dear heart, my darling ladykin, to your dear good lord and master, and you’ll see how heartily he’ll receive you!’
“I replied that I would never go back to him again. I wept for shame. The woman guessed the cause of my tears.
“‘Come, come, good heart! Why, my lady, we’ll all of us agree to deny that this little holiday ever happened. We were talking about it just now. We’ll lie the thing away, and say that your ladyship only wanted to frighten the good gentleman, and that you were hiding the whole time at the house of the local magistrate.’
“And how about the flower-selling in the market-place, and the promenade through the waters?’
“‘We’ll say that that was only done out of spite. How should a dirty clown like my husband presume to cast his eyes on such a precious treasure as your ladyship? Why, anybody who could believe such a thing would be called a downright fool. We’ll put it all to rights finely.’
“‘But a separation suit is already going on?’
“‘Your ladyship needn’t trouble your head about that. His honour has withdrawn his complaint. Yes, I declare he has. He told me he was in great embarrassment. He had been deprived of his tithes and land tax, and did not know whither to turn for money. The gentlemen up at Pest had reintroduced the morgatorium, or whatever the plaguy thing is called, which as good as said that all the old debts were not to be paid, but that no new debts were to be made. Now, if he is divorced from your ladyship, he will have to pay you back your 100,000 florins, and then he’ll be ruined. That’s a fact.’
“A light began to dawn upon me. This garrulous little peasant woman had let out the secret why my idyll had terminated so abruptly. A very pretty twice-two certainly! They receive me back like a pupil returning to school after the vacation. For that very reason I resolved I would not go back.
“When I was dressed again in my old clothes, she opened the little door and readmitted me into the larger apartment. Peter was now tricked out in his grandest array. He had donned his Sunday mantle, drawn on his new boots, and stood before me hat in hand. He was as humble as a lackey. He kissed my hand, and I noticed now for the first time how very bristly his chin was. When he spoke it sounded like the whining voice of a burnt-out beggar-man who stands at the stable-door and begs an alms.
“‘I kiss your gracious hands, my lady. I humbly beg pardon if I have offended you in any way. I didn’t mean to do it. Forgive me my fault, and I’ll never do it again.’
“At this I knew not whether to laugh or to cry.
“Then he got quite touched, and wiped his eyes with the flapping sleeves of his shirt.
“Behind the door stood a stout willow-wood stick, which he laid hold of. I wondered what he was going to do with it. Would he give it to me as a staff for my pilgrimage?
“‘Permit me, your ladyship, to accompany you as far as the castle. Some evil might befall you on the way. There are bad men about. The dogs might bark at you, and the bull is quite savage.’
“‘But I am not going to the castle,’ I said.
“He gaped at me. ‘Whither away, then?’
“‘That’s my business! The road goes up, and the road goes down. I’ll go whichever way the wind blows.’
“Then he rallied all the wisdom he possessed, and preached a sermon to me with all the unction of an Old Testament patriarch.
“‘Don’t do that, my dear good lady! Don’t grieve your good and loving lord! There’s not a better man in the world. Allow me to accompany you home. I’ll keep well behind — twenty yards if you like.’
“I stamped my foot impatiently, and bawled at him to come away from the door and let me go my way.
“Then it was that Peter showed his true colours.
“‘My lady, this cannot be! The good and worthy squire, when he gave me the ten oxen to take back my wife, said this to me: “Well! Peter Gyuricza, if you bring my wife home also, ten young calves shan’t stand between us.”’
(The rocks and woods reechoed with my laughter. I couldn’t keep it back.)
“Then my fury boiled over. You know that when I fly into a rage I am a perfect lioness, don’t you? I snatched the stick from Peter Gyuricza’s hand. ‘Lubber, lout! I’ll give you your ten young calves! There you are, take them!’ I don’t know whether I gave him exactly ten blows. I didn’t count them. And the big lout of a man turned tail, rushed into the room, dodged round the table, and roared like a hippopotamus, while I broke the stick over his shoulders. His consort thought it best not to interfere, but leaped upon the bench and looked on. It was a real luxury for her to meet with some one who could thoroughly trounce her tyrant.
“I only wish my previous journey had not fatigued me so much.
“I began to recover a little when I found myself out in the fields, and the breeze blew the heat out of my head. My idyll had come to a pretty end. What was I to do now? One thing was certain, I could not return to Muki Bagotay.
“But whither was I to go, then?
“Before me lay the beautiful Danube. The road by the dam ran all the way along it. From time to time I leaned against an old willow-tree and looked at the great living-water. Now and then a fish would leap up into the air with a loud splash. I was not afraid of the water, but of the fishes I was afraid. I could not kill myself. I should have rejoiced, if that had been true with which they used to frighten us in our childish days when we leaned over the bank and looked into the water: Beware of the devil who lurks behind you and will push you in! But he didn’t push me in. The devil can do nothing now. He cannot compete at all with the sons of men. But was it really worth while to kill myself for the sake of two such men as Muki Bagotay and Peter Gyuricza? No, my death would then have been as ridiculous as my life!
“I thought I would go home to my mother. She couldn’t exactly turn me out of doors. Let her punish me as she will — I’ll humble myself; I’ll bow down before her; I’ll endure her wrath. After all, is she not my mother, and am I not her only child? She cannot but love her little one. From any one else I could not expect to find pity or love. Why, I even hated myself!
“With these thoughts I set off towards the town.
“It was baking hot. A strong south wind was blowing, as dry and burning as if it had come out of a stove. Clouds of sand covered the whole region, and whenever a gust came, I had to take refuge under a willow-tree, lest I should be hurled into the dam. I can’t say what time of the day it was, but I know that it was the forenoon to me, for I had eaten nothing yet that day. The Gyuriczas had forgotten to invite me to sit down to their dumplings. . . . To quench my thirst, I descended once or twice to the Danube and drank some water out of the palm of my hand. On the road-side I found a flower which I thought was a cheese-poppy. I tasted it, but it was very nasty. Weary as I was, I must hasten to get to the town as soon as possible. I should have been glad even of such a piece of bread as I used to distribute to the beggars at home on Friday.
“I was hastening on towards the town, when suddenly a kind of darkness rose up before me in the sky, and on looking at it more attentively, I was horrified to observe that in the town a fire had broken out, the black smoke of which was rolling up into the dust-clouded sky.
“The burning simoon blew back the black smoke upon the town. Great Heaven! the whole town will be reduced to ashes.
“And now I began to run. I forgot that I was weary, I forgot that I was hungry. Fear lent me fresh strength. The nearer I got to the town the higher the smoke rolled up. Now, however, it was not black, but red. Millions of sparks shot flashing upwards, and huge fragments of flaming roofs were to be seen flying in the midst of them. When a tiled house caught fire, the burning tiles shivered like fiery rockets in every direction. A whole street was already in flames when I reached the town. Howling heaps of men, carts and carriages in full career, wailing women, children half crushed and suffocated, and in the midst of them all lowing kine and oxen wildly struggling back into their dark stables at the sight of the conflagration — the whole mass was rushing backwards and forwards in aimless confusion. I forced my way into a side street, lest I should be crushed to death, with the intention of getting home that way. Everywhere I encountered lamenting crowds attempting to drag along the streets the things they had saved from their houses. Nobody thought of extinguishing the flames. The burning embers fell in torrents. When I got to my mother’s house I found it already wrapped in flames. It was the highest house in the street. A handful of Honveds were attempting to extinguish the flames. Others had mounted on the roof, and were throwing the furniture out of the windows. I saw a gold-framed picture flying through the air — it was the portrait of my poor father. Oh! he indeed used to love me. If he had only lived, I should not be what I am now. There were none but strange faces around me. In vain I asked them where my mother was. They had not heard of her. All at once a white-collared officer, some major or other I suppose, came up and cried to the fire-extinguishing Honveds, ‘Why are you putting out that fire? It doesn’t deserve it. It was there that the colonel lodged who set the town on fire! Leave the cursed hole alone, and go and protect the hospital!’ I knew not whether I had gone mad or not. Why did they curse our house? The Honveds began execrating the name of a colonel who had often come to our soirées. If they recognise me, I thought, perhaps they’ll pitch me into the fire also. One heavy cart after another rattled over my poor father’s portrait. I couldn’t even save that. I was aroused from my benumbing stupor by a frightful yell, the shout of thousands and thousands of men: ‘Saint Andrew’s Church is burning!’ One of the slender towers of that vast cathedral was already in flames, while in the other the alarm-bells were ringing furiously. The mob carried me with it. Every one hastened along to save the church. But it was already too late. The other tower had also caught fire, the bells were silenced, the roof of the church was also ablaze. The beautiful church banners, which the guildsmen used to carry all round the town with great pomp on Corpus Christi day, were dragged out half charred amidst the falling firebrands. The heat was so terrible that one could not remain in the market-place. ‘The whole town’s done for!’ cried the men. ‘Let us fly to the island!’ And with that the human flood poured through the narrow streets towards the Danube. The thought occurred to me that there was a little villa which belonged to us. Happy thought! Perhaps I might find my mother there: she might have fled there for refuge. So I went along with the human torrent. By the time we got to the island drawbridge, it was impossible to get any farther through the densely packed crowd. Why were they coming back? Because the drawbridge was also burning. It was a terrible spectacle. The whole Danube shore was in flames, and the drawbridge leading to the island carried the conflagration still farther. The Danube was hissing with falling red-hot beams. Corn-ships, windmills, swam blazing along, and dashed against the ice-breakers. A band of armed Honveds posted by the custom-house kept the people back from rushing upon the burning bridge. They told us what had happened. There was a greater danger even than fire. An Imperial regiment had tried to creep quietly into the town. They were already at Tatá. The citizens, however, had found it out, and raised the drawbridge against them. The troops, enraged at the failure of their stratagem, had set the town on fire. What a cursing there was! I heard one particular name branded again and again, the name of the colonel who was to have married my mother if the revolution had not intervened.”
I could not go on with my drawing. The mist no longer lay upon the landscape, but upon my eyes.
The young lady continued circumstantially the history of those horrors:—
“Then three cannon-shots thundered from the fortress. No doubt it was only a signal which the troops often give in times of fire. But at this roaring of guns the fear of the people became still greater. ‘The enemy is storming the town!’ At this the whole crowd, which had hitherto entirely covered the Danube’s bank, immediately rushed back again into the burning town, through the flaming streets and the burning rafters. ‘To the Waag, to the Waag!’75 everybody cried. In that direction there was a hope of deliverance. I am only amazed that I was not crushed to death. In my terror I seized hold of a boatman’s arm, and the worthy man, whom I had never seen before, allowed me to cling on to him like grim death; assured me that he would take care I was not left behind, and dragged me along with him over the backs of the struggling mob.”
75 A confluent of the Danube.]
Here she had to pause. The recollections of these horrors stopped her breath. Pearls of sweat stood upon her forehead. It was only after a very long pause that she was able to resume.
“I shall never forget that day. The alarm-bells were still pealing from a single tower, the tower of the Calvinist church. All the other church towers were in ashes, this one alone remained. The wind was blowing in a contrary direction. The fire had not yet extended to that part of the town. Every one hastened in the direction of the Calvinist church tower. The streets in the vicinity of the fortress were barred against the flying crowd by the Honved regiments; the only street by which it was possible to get to the Waag was Sunday Street. This also was half in flames, but from where Great St. Michael Street cuts across it, it still remained untouched. Your house was the border building beyond which the fire had not yet extended, but the inn at the opposite corner was burned to the ground. Oh, that dear familiar house, with those cool corridors, and those red marble columns, on the iron cross-bars of which you, as a boy, so often used to show off your acrobatic feats before me! The thought occurred to me of seeking sanctuary there in my great extremity. At one time I was wont to be heartily welcomed there. It is true that I had sinned grievously against that house, and the lady had reproached me with it to my face. I had laughed at her son, and that laughter had driven him out into the world. But in seasons of great calamity wrath is forgotten. I would seek a refuge there with your mother. Such were my thoughts when I saw your mother’s house. That sight I shall never forget. There stood the good old lady on the threshold of her house, in that very brown dress, that very frilled turban in which you painted her portrait. Whenever she recognised anybody among the flying crowd, she stopped him, and asked, ‘Have you not seen my son?’ and when he replied, ‘I have not!’ she would wring her hands and sob bitterly, ‘Oh, Holy Father! why is not my son here?’”
Alas! what was the matter with my eyes? They suddenly filled with something.
The young lady continued her story:—
“When I heard your mother saying these words, I was possessed with fresh horror. It never occurred to me that you had an elder brother who was the guardian of the orphan wards of the town, and that his proper place then was in the Town Hall, with the roof blazing over his head, trying to save the property of the orphans. I dared not go along that side of the street; I crossed over to the other side. Suppose she were to seize me also and ask: ‘What have you done with my son? But for those accursed, colour-shifting eyes of yours, he would now be beside me, he would never have left me all alone!’ I dared not, I dared not meet her eye. I would rather endure the sight of my own mother’s angry face than the tearful look of your mother. I hid my face in my hands, and hurried past.”
She could say no more. She let her face fall on my breast, and sobbed aloud.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56